It seems increasingly plausible that we’ll see an effort to steal the 2024 presidential election if the Democratic candidate wins by a margin close enough to permit it. Indeed, whether this effort does or does not end up happening, a host of bad actors are already laying the groundwork for it right now, via the execution of a simple mission.

That mission is to come up with new ways to discredit the very idea that our elections are capable of rendering procedurally legitimate outcomes. That is the necessary precondition for any future effort to overturn an outcome that doesn’t go to Republicans’ liking.

This basic thought emerges from Jane Mayer’s New Yorker exposé of all the dark money funding the ongoing assault on democracy. Mayer shows how the money from “wealthy reactionaries” who bankroll conservative causes is now funding efforts by right-wing groups to sow doubts about the U.S. electoral system, pass new voting restrictions and launch sham “audits” of 2020 vote counts.

But while the money angle is noteworthy, what also deserves attention is the core insight motivating these efforts. It’s that the question of whether voter fraud can or cannot be proved is irrelevant.

Instead, those making such accusations need to create just enough confusion to enable well-placed Republicans to say the actual outcome of a given election is fundamentally unknowable. The coin of the realm is not concocted proof; it’s manufactured uncertainty. This is what will lay the groundwork for attempting to overturn a future election.

This idea is threaded throughout Mayer’s piece. For instance, the chairwoman of Arizona’s Republican Party has hailed the sham “audit” of votes there as a “domino” that, once fallen, will potentially inspire more audits in other states.

This audit is being run by a firm whose CEO has already pushed nonsense about the election being stolen from Donald Trump. It is pretty obvious that this audit will miraculously show that the vote count was dubious or fraudulent. This will be conclusively debunked, but that’s irrelevant: The manufacturing of fake reasons to keep alive baseless impressions of uncertainty, in the full knowledge that they are manufactured, is the thing that matters.

As one Republican defender of democracy tells Mayer: “If they come up with an analysis that discredits the 2020 election results in Arizona, it will be replicated in other states, furthering more chaos.” We know the “analysis” is preordained to do just that, because that’s the whole point of it.

In another example of this, one of the lawyers who pushed Trump’s lies about 2020 blithely tells Mayer that the Georgia outcome was dubious. “I don’t think we can say with certainty who won,” she says, adding: “The only remedy is a new election.”

We actually can say with certainty who won Georgia, but here again we’re seeing a dry run at inventing new ways to say an outcome is unknowable, which would then justify efforts to resolve the outcome in some other way.

Among these, of course, might be a GOP legislature sending rogue electors to Congress in defiance of their state’s popular vote. This could be justified by claims that the vote count was too dubious to be resolved conclusively.

To be sure, many of these bad actors are fringe characters. But not-so-fringy Republicans in other states, such as Wisconsin, are responding to Trump’s rage at them for failing to produce evidence that the outcome was dubious by expanding efforts to “find” that evidence.

As always, Trump himself has demonstrated how all this is supposed to work. Last week, the news broke that he privately urged the Justice Department to declare the election’s outcome corrupt even though the department had found zero grounds for concluding anything like this.

“Just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me,” Trump told a senior department official, per that official’s notes on the conversation.

Trump did not expect the department to reverse the results; he wanted the department only to help manufacture doubts about them. If conditions are right, this could very well be the playbook next time.

To be clear, those conditions may not materialize at all. If they do, such efforts very well may not come to fruition. And they would probably fail if they did.

But we shouldn’t be under any illusions: We’re seeing new test runs at manufacturing exactly the sort of uncertainty needed to execute such a scheme unfold as we speak.